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Transport Equity
October 15, 2020

How to Improve Public Transportation in Rural Areas

When it comes to improving public transportation in rural areas—flexibility is key.

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It’s no secret that Public Transportation continues to present challenges for communities in rural areas. With difficulties in obtaining funding, service frequency, wider travel zones and a lack of access to services compared to urban public transport, councils and governments are in greater need than ever before to improve their transportation services in rural areas. 

The way that people have traditionally accessed fixed-route transportation services has dramatically changed over the past decade. With the introduction of shared mobility services like Uber, passengers now have a greater level of expectation when it comes to conveniently selecting a mode of transport. But for rural communities, it’s a different story.

So how can we improve public transportation in rural areas?

When it comes to improving public transportation in rural areas—flexibility is key. The first step is to provide an easy and efficient way for more people to access public transportation. On-Demand Public transportation, also known as Demand-Responsive Transportation (DRT) provides a way to increase the geographical coverage of a traditional public transit service. This means vehicles can cover a larger service area and reach more passengers. By utilising DRT technology to improve fleet efficiency and give passengers a way to book public transportation—Councils, Fleet Operators and Transit Agencies in rural communities can easily improve their Public Transportation offering.

Let’s look more into why this is so important and what can be done to improve existing fixed-route transportation services in these communities.

Why is public transport so important?

Public Transport is the beating heart of cities and towns. It connects and enables individuals to access local services more affordably, and is the most efficient way of moving large volumes of commuters in and out of our towns and cities. Efficient public transport saves a lot of time wasted looking for parkingresearch shows that American’s spend 73 billion dollars worth of their time searching for car parks. 

Not only is capitalising on Public Transport better for the environment, but it’s better for our health. Public Transport consequently lowers air pollution and therefore heightens air quality, increases physical activity compared to driving cars and reduces the number of traffic related injuries and deaths on our roads. The 2020 COVID-19 lockdown’s have reduced pollution up to 30% in areas like Wuhan, Italy, Spain and the USA, showing society first-hand the drastic impacts of transport emission reduction when we all slow down and travel less.

Consequently, utilising Public Transport in both urban and rural communities is an imperative strategy in reducing emissions, with road vehicles causing 80% of transport emissions. In 2018, the transportation industry contributed toward 28.2% of total greenhouse gas emissions. 

When sustainable modes of affordable public transit are utilised, emissions are lessened, as are the detrimental environmental impacts of single-use occupancy vehicles. Public transport also allows for better allocation of land use—which results in more affordable housing and a lowered cost of living. 

Access to public transport in both urban and rural areas plays a vital part in shaping our future. 

It links our communities to cities and regional centres, and connects us to essential services. As our population continues to rise and urban sprawl continues, it is important that members of modern society are not disconnected from opportunity—provided this connection is the value of sustainable, affordable and convenient Public Transport.

Why is public transportation essential in rural areas?

With an ageing world-wide population and lack of easy access to services in rural areas, public transport is vital in supporting community members who are unable to drive or afford the upkeep of personal vehicles. 

Let’s look at the United Kingdom as an example. Throughout rural areas across the UK it can be particularly uneconomical and expensive for families to own multiple vehiclesbut with a larger transit area to cover, over 50% of families in rural communities are often left without the choice and own two or more cars.

Source: Transport Statistics Great Britain 2019

Spend on Transportation in Great Britain on average made up 14 percent of household expenditure in 2017/2018, averaging £80.20 per week. Expenditure on transport costs has increased since 2013 in rural areas, with urban expenditure remaining static. Rural areas therefore have a much higher disposable income compared to urban areas due to the higher cost of living on commodities and services. Commuting within rural areas can be therefore costly without the support of an effective transport provider. 

Source: Transport Statistics Great Britain 2019

Despite this, 5% of households in rural Great Britain are still without access to a car. 

A need for Public Transport to reduce single occupancy vehicle use on rural roads stems from a need to support communities in receiving greater access to services in an affordable, safe and flexible way. From the young and old who are unable to drive a car, to the cohort who cannot afford car ownerships, or multiple car ownership—flexible Public Transport opportunities can alleviate the pain points associated with current fixed-route transport options.

What are the primary modes of public transport in rural communities?

How do people get around in rural areas? There are generally limited options available and polarised travel patterns in rural communities, but the most popular transit modes include:

Looking again at the UK as an exampledata reveals that on average over 70% of travellers outside of Greater London travel by car to work, as opposed to over 80% within Greater London who are utilising public transport options.  Of this, 55%  of UK domestic emissions in 2017 were from cars, as opposed to 3% emissions from buses. 

Private vehicle use continues to be the primary mode of transportation outside of major urban cities, with the most detrimental impact on the environment.

How can rural areas improve their public transportation systems? 

Transit providers can improve their Public Transportation systems by implementing environmentally friendly and economical ways to travel across greater distances. 

The main challenge, however, is providing better access to more frequent and affordable transit options.

The traditional high cost per passenger model needs to change and a great way to combat this is to utilise existing fleets that already service these communities. Being able to track adequate data on an existing fixed-route service is the first step. This data can then be used for data-driven service simulation, which potentially uncovers opportunities to improve coverage whilst lowering the cost of operations.

By taking a data-driven approach to service optimisation you can:

  • Improve coverage 
  • Provide greater flexibility to passengers 
  • Increase patronage
  • Offer a sustainable form of transport
  • Modify inefficient fixed-route transit services 
  • Improve passenger catchment and integrate with the broader transport network
  • Reduce reliance on single occupancy vehicle use
  • Extend service hours and connect more passengers to amenities such as medical appointments, retail locations and employment opportunities

By improving the ability to encourage more shared journeys in rural areas, we can reduce the environmental impacts of individual car use—giving families a more affordable option than owning multiple vehicles, allowing the vulnerable to conveniently access vital services, and creating flexible travel options for patrons.


Public Transport can be improved in rural areas by providing an easy and efficient way for community members to access public transportation. Transit Agencies can do this by taking a data driven and cost effective approach when implementing a Demand-Responsive Transport system that moves away from fixed-route services. When transit providers make the change—carbon footprint, environmental impact and operational costs are reduced, affordable and flexible transport options are offered to the community, and the cost of living is significantly lowered for patrons. 

Public Transportation is essential in connecting our communities to essential services, however, traditional transport modes need to adapt with changes in patron behaviour and expectations in order to remain relevant.  


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Get insights to one of our latest Demand-Responsive Transport projects with North Lincolnshire Council's JustGoBus service— with a ten times larger service zone than your average DRT project.

About the Author

Ellyse McCallum

Ellyse McCallum


Australian-based digital marketer passionate about making an impactful societal change through every-day life. Ellyse loves spending time in nature, drinking coffee and hanging with family and friends (preferably all at the same time)!